Vienna–Coffee Culture and Jugendstil

Our hotel, the Altstadt Vienna, looks shabby at first glance. The poorly heated entry with deep red carpeting isn’t dirty exactly, but it’s far from spotless. We shrug and climb the stairs to the tiny reception area, dragging our luggage up behind us.
The unkempt entryway must be to discourage thieves and criminals, because our room is the picture of luxurious perfection. I look down and focus in on my well-worn mary-janes (my formal and slightly orthopedic looking traveling shoes), and suddenly I’m the one that feels shabby.
Room in the Altstadt Vienna
A narrow hallway with a washroom and toilet on one side, and a giant glassed in shower with a rainforest shower head on the other opens into an airy living space easily taking up over half the square footage of our apartment in Barcelona. Vertical stripes in deep charcoal emphasize the sheer size of the room and draw the eye up, up, up, to a huge crystal chandelier hung over an immense bed. To one side there’s an elegant pedestal sink with all kinds of miniature goodies from L’Occitane, a French toiletries company. I smirk as I notice they’re my preferred L’Occitane scent, verbena.
In a corner adjacent to the bed, a gleaming white slipper tub with clawed silver feet pleads with me to skip dinner and stay in for the night.  Across the room, Jesus has succumbed with a sigh and sunk into one of the leather sofas in the sitting area where he looks longingly at the martini glass
full of designer chocolates on the coffee table. Mid-eye-roll I spot the espresso machine across the room on a desk and try not to swoon, a caffeine fix is in order, followed by a hot bath, perhaps.
Slipper Tub Hotel Altstadt
Unfortunately, plans have been made, so I freshen up and throw back a quick espresso while Jesus savors a couple of chocolates. We power-walk the short distance from the hotel to the restaurant. It’s in Vienna’s Museum Quartier, popularly known as the MQ. The MQ is comprised of what used to be the royal stables (which explains the horse-head cornices) as well as some newer museum buildings clustered around an open square littered with clunky neon pink benches.  As can be reasonably expected of a restaurant in a museum, dinner is a fussy, small-portioned affair that costs a small-fortune. Thankfully, our savings are safe. Since we’re here to film a short travel video about Vienna, the board of tourism is footing the bill for food and accommodation.
The next day I wake up disoriented, take in the chandelier and the slipper tub, and remember. After sucking down my morning pot of coffee and multi-grain toast with smoked salmon, I raise my eyebrow at Jesus. Is he ready to go? He shakes his head almost imperceptibly. They just brought out a new kind of pastry that he really must try. On some trips I waste time being jealous of his superior metabolism and ability to gorge without consequences, but today we have a full itinerary and there’s simply no time for useless envy.
After Jesus inhales his final pastry (for today anyway), we’re off to explore with expert guidance. Piroska, our tour guide, is Hungarian and makes me think of Sophia Loren. She has one of those gorgeous, dramatic bone structures that stand up so well to time and life in general. Sometimes high cheekbones are a girl’s best friend, what more can be said?
Springtime in Vienna is crisp and green, cool but not cold, perfect weather for strolling. Clean, organized and full parks, gardens and trees, Vienna has been consistently declared one of the best cities to live in, in Austria, Europe and the world over.
Trailing behind Piroska and Jesus as we wander among buildings embellished with stylized images of beautiful women, flowers and animals, I try not to block pedestrian traffic as I attempt to get my camera to stop distorting everything that catches my fancy into a melting and unrecognizable digital mess.
As an Art Nouveau fan hailing from Missouri by way of Barcelona, I easily recognize buildings with elements of Jugendstil, even before Piroska points them out. Jugensdstil, Piroska continues, gesturing towards the buildings, is the Austrian version of the movement known as Modernisme in Barcelona and Stile Liberty in Italy. In Vienna, the movement is also known as Sezessionstil and was adopted and promoted by the Vienna Secession, a group of artists that broke away from the Association of Austrian Artists and the “conservative” art styles the association promoted.
From this group emerged two of my favorite Jugendstil artists, Gustav Klimt, and Otto Wagner. Even though not everyone knows Klimt by name, most people would recognize his famous painting “The Kiss” on sight. While copies abound, the original is still right here in Vienna in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere museum.  Characterized by prominent use of gold, spirals and swirls, texture and mosaic techniques in combination with a flat perspective and expressive faces and postures, Klimt’s “The Kiss” is unforgettable.
Otto Wagner, an architect, is to Vienna what Gaudí is to Barcelona. While his buildings aren’t as wild or colorful as modernist architecture in Barcelona, his white gold-leafed Majolika Haus is beautiful and dignified, almost imperial in its elegance, which makes it even more tragic that my camera simply refuses to cooperate.
As we work our way across town to Café Sperl, one of Vienna’s best-preserved historic coffee houses, Piroska explains that unlike in other European metropolis, in Vienna, coffeehouse customers are encouraged to linger and coffees are always served with a glass of cold tap-water, refilled at regular intervals by the wait-staff because customers are regarded as guests, rather than pests that should guzzle their coffee and scram.
Cafe Sperl
We’re welcomed at the door by a silver-haired gentleman that Piroska identifies as the owner.
Smoke tendrils reach for cherubs painted on the ceiling in the café’s hazy interior. Upholstered chairs and benches mingle with marble-topped tables below brass and crystal chandeliers. Instead of my traditional American filter coffee, I order a Mélange, the Austrian take on what the Spanish call café con leche, a mixture of hot frothy milk and steamed coffee. I find I like it better, because it doesn’t have the strong burnt taste that café con leche occasionally acquires from strong espresso. Jesus orders a mokka hoping for what Starbucks calls a “mocha” and is disappointed when he finds out after the fact that in Austria, mokka is merely strong black coffee, no chocolate involved. If he had been listening to Piroska’s detailed descriptions of the multitude of coffee-drinks available, he would have ordered a Wiener Eiskaffee. While Jesus is no great coffee drinker, coffee and ice-cream is another matter altogether.
For a sweet-treat Austrian style coffee/dessert, try a Weiner Eiskaffee (Viennese Iced Coffee).
Put 2 scoops vanilla ice cream into a glass and cover with milk add two shots of espresso (hot) and serve with a straw. Get creative and use flavored coffees, and different kinds of ice cream. Anyone up for hazelnut espresso and heavy cream drizzled over dark chocolate ice cream?
Practical Information:
Getting There: Direct flights available from the U.S. Already in Europe? Budget airlines like Vueling and RyanAir fly here, too.
Where to Stay: Hotel Aldstadt
Coffee: Café Sperl

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